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Polo Classic brings touch of Britain for Ronald McDonald House fundraiser

Fri., Sept. 5, 2014

There will be big hats and divots to stomp this Sunday at the Cobra Polo Classic.

The fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Spokane – now in its 10th year – features gourmet food and drinks and a silent auction with items such as a trip to Hawaii, wine tasting tours, collectors’ wines and gift certificates for sports games and dining.

Colleen Fox, development and communications director for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Spokane, said the polo event has raised more than $2.5 million for the charity over the past nine years.

“It’s really an amazing event, and it looks incredible when all the white tents are set up out here,” said John Babin, who owns a barn at the Spokane Polo Club fields in Airway Heights.

The sport, often associated with the British aristocracy, has been played in some form for 2,000 years. A polo match is played by two teams of four riders. A game consists of four to eight chukkas – 7 1/2 minute periods – and the clock is stopped for penalties and injuries. The goal is to drive the small white ball between the goalposts for a score.

“It looks a little complicated when you first get started,” said Babin, before a practice session at the club on Aug. 28. The polo field is larger than nine football fields, allowing some space for horses to stop and turn.

“Polo ponies are around 15 hands tall, a bit on the small side,” said Babin, who currently has nine horses in his barn. “A good polo pony has guts and it’s agile.” Players and their horses bump each other during the match as they jockey for position, an unnatural thing for horses to do.

“They don’t want to run into each other,” Babin said, explaining that he sends his horses to “cow training” to get them used to the physical contact with cattle. “We don’t tell them they are polo ponies until they come back here.”

The horses accelerate quickly, stop and turn in narrow spaces on the field during the game, and yes, they have ball sense.

“A good horse turns before you know you have to,” said Babin. “It’s like having a good hunting dog – they know what to do.”

Keeping nine horses healthy, fed and ready to go is expensive, but Babin said polo really is a family sport – and it’s not just for the well-off.

Since he began playing polo 10 years ago, his family has joined him and he said the Spokane Polo Club count players as young as 11 and as old as their mid-70s.

“Everybody can play,” Babin said.

What does he do with all the horses when the season is over?

“We’ve been known to take them elk hunting,” he said. “They are just like any other horse when they aren’t playing.”


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